To understand how Muttiah Muralitharan will be remembered in India, you only have to take a walk on Chennai's Marina Beach or on Mumbai's Oval Maidan one evening. One boy after another will be trying to bowl like him, unconscious of the fact that Murali is inimitable. His off-spin cannot spawn any genuine copies.
Just as it was a quirk of the spine and a shorter left leg that were responsible for the unique dribbling skills of Garrincha, the Brazilian footballer, so a deformed elbow, exceptionally supple wrists and the strongest of shoulders made Murali what he is. A one-off, a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime bowler. As is the case elsewhere in the world, you will find two distinct schools of thought in India when it comes to Murali and his bowling action. The high priest of one is Bishen Singh Bedi, who has never relented in his criticism of the Sri Lankan's action. Even his latest remarks were as backhanded as any compliment could be.
"Murali is a wonderful personality, a thinking cricketer and a crafty bowler but he leaves behind a legacy of chucking," said Bedi in an interview last week. "It's high time the ICC woke up to the possibility of the Test scene being swamped by finger spinners with illegitimate actions." The other viewpoint embraces the sundry tests and laboratory analyses that Murali was subjected to before the laws of the game were tweaked to incorporate the fact that every bowler straightened his arm during delivery.
The average fan, though, is not unduly fussed about whether Murali's arms straightens 12 or 13 degrees when he bowls the doosra. What he will miss most are the contests, the little games within a Test match that makes cricket so captivating to watch. Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar had a few memorable contests down the years, and Murali's tussles with India's batting titan have also added much to the game since they first crossed paths in 1993. In 21 Tests against India, Murali has 97 wickets at 33.34. If the rain relents in Galle, it will be a brave man or woman that bets against him reaching three figures. In 19 of those games, he has come up against Tendulkar, and the 74 wickets have been a shade more expensive at 37.7 each. When Tendulkar was absent as a result of injury in 2001, Murali harvested 23 wickets in a home series win.
In India, he averages a less impressive 45.45, but that can largely be attributed to the fact that the Sri Lankans were never invited over when he was at his peak. In 1994 and 1997, he was still too callow, while the series last year, when he managed just nine wickets at 65.66, was the clearest sign that Father Time had started to nudge him on the shoulder. In the one series that he played when at his best, he took 16 wickets in 2005, including a gripping duel at Delhi's Feroz Shah Kotla as Tendulkar overtook Sunil Gavaskar's record of 34 Test centuries.
True to his non-controversial nature, Tendulkar refused to compare Murali with Warne, focussing instead on how much Sri Lanka would miss him. "Murali has been to Sri Lanka what Anil [Kumble] was to the Indian team," he said, not forgetting the third great spinner of our age. Tendulkar played with and against them all, and now sees off the last of the trio. Last man standing, in more ways than one.